In this article Javier tackles the sense of fairness in children and how to avoid the fairness trap by encoraging uniqueness and individuality.“It’s not fair!”

How many times as parents have we heard this? How many times have we gone over the odds to please everybody only to find the little ones (and not so little) fighting a corner that will only end up in frustration and, most likely, an argument?

I have to be honest, as a dad this was one of the most frustrating things to deal with. I would pride myself on being an honest, fair dad. As a young boy I hated when parents or relatives would award special dispensation to my older brother (oh… how I hated it! It still makes my stomach churn). So, when I became a dad, I made  fairness my flag… oh dear, I didn’t know what was coming.

10 years ago, I became a Children and Teenager Life Coach. In this time, I had thousands of conversations with young people and parents and can’t remember how many times this line has come up. As with my own family, it was a source of discomfort as I could sense something was going on and didn’t know how to tackle it.

Let’s illustrate this with a real case with a strong sense of fairness.

We are going to call this girl Gaby, of course, not her real name.

Gaby is a 11 years old girl. She has an older brother. Gaby is showing a very difficult behaviour at home, she is argumentative and would not hesitate to pick up a fight. More importantly, she will not give up until a final decision has been made. In most of the cases, she eventually manages to either get her own way or drag everybody with her, which seems stupid but there is some sense of achievement on this: “now it is fair because everybody is miserable, not only me.”

When I talk with Gaby, she spends most of the time talking about her brother and in virtually every situation, she is comparing herself to him.

Some comparisons made were:

If he does sport, why doesn’t she do it.

If he is not engaging in her arguments, why is he not doing it?

If he engages in argument, why are their parents not punishing him more as he is the oldest one?

If she has to take her exams (her brother already did), why is he not doing them?

If she has to do homework, why doesn’t her brother do more than her, as he is the oldest one?

If her brother was to stay up longer at night or have any specific treat… well, better not think about it.

Ok, granted, this is an extreme case and most parents will not experience this level of conflict, but it is not unusual to find similar situations in our daily parenting duties. Especially where there is a strong sense of fairness involved.

In many conversations I have heard parents (talking about other parents) say things like: they are too soft, they don’t have any rules, they need some discipline with her/him. In my experiences, it is always easier when talking about others than when facing those dilemmas ourselves. My job is not to judge, but to help.

Going back to Gaby and her parents. 

Her parents are lost and can’t figure out what to do. If they are too soft, it seems she is taking them for a ride. If they are too strict, hell breaks loose, and the conflict goes to extremes they can’t deal with. It is important to call your attention to the article about control that we published earlier. While the parents will have certain lines, they will not cross, children will not have those lines and will cross every line they can to get their own way.

A lot of the parents are frustrated because they think it is a premeditated behaviour: She is pushing me, she is pushing the limits, she is testing me.

And here comes something I also hear from parents a lot of the time: “but we don’t entertain that behaviour” or “ we never reward those things” “she doesn’t get her way”.

Before I start the next paragraph, I want to issue a disclaimer: I love the parents and children I support. I trust them all. But they tend to be poor judges of their own behaviour. So, take the next part of the article with my best intention in mind and use it to see your actions in a different way.

What are the normal outcomes of this conflict situation? and, most importantly, how it can be perceived by the child and their sense of fairness? Here are a few ideas:

 Parents escalate the argument (the kid will not get her way), there are arguments, bad energy, and tension. The whole time is ruined, and everybody is in a bad mood

     The child’s potential subconscious perception: “well, at least now we are equal and I am not the only one upset.”

 Parents try to sooth the young person (of any age) giving them attention while not giving them whatever they desire 

  The child’s potential subconscious perception: I got their attention, if I behave a bit more they will eventually forgive me and give it to me.

Parents try to compensate with other options (she can’t have more tv time but she is offered staying around later)

The child’s potential subconscious perception: I got something out of this, I could get something else.

Parents hold for a while, but eventually give up. Maybe you say: “no, you can’t see more telly” and then, after some conflict you concede “ok,you can see five more minutes” which eventually turn to 10 por 15.  These events tend to be low to medium intensity, but very frequent. Think about you kid interrupting you as they want you to do something for them right away and you put everything on hold.

The child’s potential subconscious perception: Ok, that worked well.

There is another part of the situation, this one happens a while later after the conflict, in case there has been an argument and/or shouting. Most parents that I know, will aim to make peace at some point, normally before bed time and ensure their kids go to bed in a good mood, as well as them going to bed with the feeling of having resolved the issue. Basically, we kiss, make up and let’s hope for a better day tomorrow.

Do the different situations sound familiar to you? Do you see a sense of fairness causing conflict in your home? 

And then, we just have to wait until the next outburst happens. 

It is not fair!

But it’s not fair for them, the kids,  or for you the parents.

I have to admit the next bit of the writing is a bit hard, but here it goes. If you can recognise yourself repeating one or several of those behaviours: it is not working. It will not work and it will only probably get worse. Sorry to say, but something has to change. You can wait for your child to change but think: who is the adult? who is able to change? who is more mature and can make better decisions?, yeah, it is you. Until you change your approach, your child won’t know what to change.

But let’s go back to the sense of fairness that children feel and how to deal with it. 

Well, I have some news. In my personal opinion, my role as a dad it’s not about fairness. In fact, being fair is probably the worst I can do for my children because it doesn’t recognise their individual needs.

As parents, I believe that our job is to provide each of our children with what they need at each time, respecting their uniqueness and boosting their individual opportunities. 

From this point, the “it’s not fair” argument doesn’t resonate with me at all, and I hope this article helps you see things in a different light.

If one child is sick, he/she will need more of my attention.

If one child is going through a difficult friendship situation, he/she will need my support more.

If one of my children are struggling with certain work and the others are doing well, then I have a duty of helping the one struggling. 

If my teenager daughter wants to go out, it is clear I would not set the same home-time to her than to my pre-teen daughter.

Those are obvious examples, but we can extend that to so many things.

Of course, there are other areas in which fairness is important. Just be careful and clear on which ones they are.

The point of this article is to help you avoid the Fairness trap. When your child tells you “it’s not fair” or displays a  misplaced sense of fairness,  just stop for a few seconds and consider this: Is this a fairness situation? Or is it a situation of doing what is right for each child independently?

We could complicate this topic as much as possible, but I like to keep things simple and I will leave it there. 

Avoid the fairness trap, If you feel it is not appropriate to consider fairness, don’t even go there. Don’t entertain the conversation. 

Aim to provide what each of your child needs at each time and they will be fine.

I know, I know

It is a lot easier said than done. But if you ever doubt, just think of the potential of not being clear on this point.

The goal is to make them each feel unique in their own, not by comparing themselves with their other siblings. Reinforce their uniqueness, individuality and self . They won’t take those 15minutes more of tv with them but they will take their sense of self and being appreciated as such with them for the rest of their life.

Suggested reading.